Back in the rollicking days of working at that scrappy newspaper the North Adams  Transcript, I got to write a lot of unusual pieces that I don’t think most daily newspapers would allow into their hallowed halls, or at the very least wouldn’t even have the opportunity to encounter. Case in point — for just under two years, my regular weekly column Megabits and Pieces scoured the corners of the World Wide Web for strangeness in the final days before Facebook, Twitter, and that lot seized control.

You can imagine that many of the links used in the column no longer work, but by some miracle of either solid decision-making or lackadaisical website maintenance, the Charles Dickens game still exists and you can go play it RIGHT NOW with the link provided in this column from March, 2005. Enjoy!

With all the talk of disturbing and gross computer games, the delicate sensibilities that watch out for our children seem to have missed “Surviving Charles Dickens’ London.”

The motto of the game seems to be “Welcome to London, now suffer miserably!”

Not that you don’t see it coming — the game begins with an animated pullback from a dingy gray factory wall with a mournful dirge, eventually settling on the image of Kit, a young boy who has “just arrived in the city and needs your help.”

It seems that Kit requires a train ticket to visit Mr. Charles Dickens, although why they just can’t bypass the game by having Dickens lend the poor kid 12 shillings is unclear. The ticket collector who tells Kit the cost of the ticket warns him that “the streets of London are not for the faint-hearted.” Probably not, but I’ve always wanted to be an urchin of some sort.

Starting out with 100 percent health and two shillings to his name, Kit walks down a dingy, dark alley next to a slow-moving rat — rats and dogs, by the way, will take away from your health each time you encounter them, disgusting creatures that they are. Eventually, in a debtor’s prison, Kit encounters a suicidal man sitting in the corner of a lonely cell who begs for a shilling. He must be kidding me — I have to accrue eight shillings to get to Charles Dickens and I don’t even know how I am going to cobble together my fare! One shilling is not going to get this guy out of prison. Let him continue to furrow his brow to the tortures of his life, I have my own problems.

“You’re cruel and you’re heartless!” he curses me. “You’ll do well in the streets of London!”

Um … thanks?

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Nasty comments like that just make me … uh, I mean, Kit … more stubborn. When he meets Oliver Twist and Twist automatically asks “Please sir may I have some more?” I’m a bit annoyed The guy’s had enough gruel for one day if you ask me — Kit has not had a drop of gruel and he is still expected at Dickens’ house.

“Thanks for nothing, sir!” Twist snipes at me. This is not a game for those who can’t deal with a certain level of personal insult.

Later, Kit meets “pestilential Jo, the crossing sweeper” which isn’t a good thing. The game informs me that “You suffer heavily and have to pay for bandages to cover your oozing pustules.” I lose a shilling for the bandages and notice that Kit now has red sores all over his face. Jo shrugs casually with an innocent face as if to say “How was I to know I had oozing pustules all over my body?” Sure, Jo, sure.

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I decide to follow the ghost of Jacob Marley to see how others in London live — my gaping sores lead me to believe I could use a little cheering up. What exciting wonders does London hold for me? Why child prostitution, of course, as a bewildered Little Nell is lead away by the firm grope of a, shall we say, mature gentleman with something on his mind. This scene is accompanied by the little tidbit that in 1839, half of all funerals in London were for children under the age of 10 — which isn’t bad if you consider that the average life expectancy was 22! Cheer up, Young London!

My oozing pustules are killing me and that sort of information is not making it any better — and then Marley ditches me. He’s ruined my day already, why stick around? Onto the Law Courts where I meet Uriah Heap, and I’m not talking about the ’70s prog rock band. Mr. Heap offers an investment, which I decide to take in the hope that I might raise a couple shillings. Heap steals my cash and I wander the streets broke, although the oozing pustules are looking much better. One must count one’s blessings, mustn’t one?

You can probably predict that the evil Fagin will take advantage of my desperation to talk me into picking a few pockets. What else am I going to do, but dodge some cops and lift some needed cash? I steal three shillings before I am caught the first time — another shot leads me to a second arrest and the doom of a life behind bars. Kit is shown staring hopelessly in a cell and I am surprised the game leaves off here — surely they could continue it to the point where I am murdered, starved, or commit suicide!

So I start the game again, and this time around, I have a new strategy taking into account the whole karma thing — I give the debtor a shilling, I don’t acknowledge Uriah Heap or Fagin. I really feel like I’m beginning to get the hang of this living in London thing. Look, mom, no oozing pustules!

Eventually, I wander down to the Thames — nothing wrong with a little sightseeing — where I am greeted by the sight of a boozing loafer who stumbles over and passes out on the dock. It’s so foggy it’s a miracle that I can even see the loafer. Not a good miracle, though.

The narration describes the Thames as “little more than an open sewer and yet it provided the city’s water supply.” It is referred to as “the great stink” and that is obviously what clouds my brain when I decide that it is a good idea to help out Gaffer Hexam and Rogue Riderhood in their boat even though I’m warned of a death risk. From the smell? No, from cholera, cheerfully passed on by the multiple infected dead bodies littering the Thames. The job involves going out on a boat and robbing dead bodies of their belongings. Well, that sounds easy.

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I’m up to four shillings, top of my game in the field of rummaging through dead people’s pockets! The trick is to swerve past the glowing green bodies — a sure sign of deadly cholera. Unfortunately, I find my boat slow and despite the monetary victory of the venture, I have touched too many infected cadavers in my greed.

Death by cholera is swift and ugly. I am left with the grim image of Kit, covered with a blanket, dead, accompanied by a nitpicking comment from the game that I have expired because I have not looked after my health. As if I had a choice! I came out of the deal with four shillings that will no doubt end up in the hands of the next Kit as he rummages through the my floating body for money in an endless cycle of doom.

If nothing else, the BBC has succeeded in proving that learning doesn’t have to be boring. I hope someday, they have cool games of mayhem to teach about the Spanish Inquisition and Joan of Arc.

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